Friday, October 7, 2016

Menuhin’s “Virtuoso” and “Landmark” Recordings

The final CD box in Warner Classics’ The Menuhin Century collection is entitled The Virtuoso & His Landmark Recordings. This is a rather peculiar conjunction of what those who know their linear algebra would call orthogonal features. It also raises the question of just what constitutes a landmark. What seems to be the case is that “landmarks” involve some departure from violinist Yehudi Menuhin’s comfort zone with regard to repertoire and/or colleagues. While this may not be strictly the case as it applies to the last eleven CDs in this box, it at least provides a useful frame of reference. On the other hand it is clear that the first two CDs
 are supposed to be the “virtuoso” ones; so my own working definition probably came down to a landmark being “something with distinguishing features not associated with virtuosity.”

There are definitely some unexpected partnerships among the landmarks, but they amount to a mixed bag. Most interesting are those recording sessions in November of 1968 that brought Menuhin together with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Pierre Boulez. The Wikipedia biography of Boulez identifies 1959–1971 as the period following his energetic administration of the Domaine musical series of concerts promoting “new music” during which Boulez shifted his attention from composing to conducting. As a point of reference, Boulez made his conducting debut in the United States with the Cleveland Orchestra in March of 1965, back when Music Director George Szell was particularly conservative in his approach to repertoire. The BBC Symphony had no trouble being more adventurous than most American ensembles at that time, and they provided just the right environment for Boulez to work out his thoughts about Alban Berg’s violin concerto. Those who know Menuhin’s preferred repertoire might think that he would have been an unlikely fit for this project; but, on the basis of the recording that resulted, the partnership resulted in an account of this concerto that honored both the intricate details of its structure and the raw passions of its rhetoric. The other two recordings with Boulez are of the two rhapsodies that Béla Bartók composed as duos for violin and piano and subsequently orchestrated; and what matters most on these tracks is Boulez’ attention to the broad palette of instrumental coloration. Menuhin’s technical skill is impressive but nevertheless secondary to the overall effect.

That comparison is representative of the whole set of “landmark” recordings. Some are definitely impressive, such as the sassiness that Menuhin brings to Poulenc’s violin sonata with Jacques Février as his accompanist, while others, such as Menuhin’s viola performance of Hector Berlioz’ Opus 16 “Harold in Italy” with Colin Davis conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, never register particularly strong memories. Nevertheless, at least the repertoire is more interesting than the selections on the opening two “Virtuoso” CDs. A spoken introduction (in French, English, and German) explains that Menuhin came to know these pieces from recordings made by Jascha Heifetz. It thus seems fair to make the personal disclaimer that my own knowledge grew out of repeated listenings to RCA’s The Heifetz Collection.

Now it is, of course, perfectly reasonable for Menuhin to take on the sorts of virtuoso encores that Heifetz would perform. It is even worth acknowledging that he usually can scale the bar that Heifetz set with the recordings he made. Nevertheless, these are more like athletic achievements than performances of music. None of the tracks on those two CDs give the impression that Menuhin had anything of his own to add to what Heifetz had already achieved. The recordings thus provide a certain degree of historical completeness in accounting for Menuhin’s career but do little more than that.

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